Cape Cod Times: Mellencamp's Memorable Journey Down "Route 7609"

By Ken Capobianco

In the informative and instructive liner notes to John Mellencamp's new four-CD box set "On Rural Route 7609" (Mercury/Island/ UMe), after lamenting his early years as Johnny Cougar, the singer/songwriter tells writer Anthony DeCurtis "nobody has come as far as I have." And never have truer word been spoken. Mellencamp's transformation from a generic, industry built rocker into one of the most eloquent and sharp-eyed chroniclers of the hopes and failures of America is one of rock music's great stories.

Over the course of the last two-and-a-half decades dating back to 1985's "Scarecrow," he has released a number of passionate records filled with songs exploring the American experience.

With compassion for those left behind by a country that has seemingly lost its compass, and with a wary eye towards institutions and those in power, Mellencamp has honored the legacy of folk and blues musicians he obviously has been influenced by while making his own deep imprint on the pop music consciousness.
Of course, he's never lost his rock `n' roll heart and his songs of rebellion and pushing life limits have been ever present. Over the last decade as time has taken its toll, though, he has ruminated on age and how life's limits inevitably tend to push back.

With this box set, Mellencamp reflects and asks listeners to look at his career's best work and, perhaps, take a fresh listen to some of the songs they might have overlooked-especially those of recent years from records like "Freedom's Road" or "Life Death Love and Freedom," which even his own fans tended to shy away from (especially the latter, an often mournful, often beautiful set about, as the title implies, life's big questions).

Thankfully, he is not recycling the hits in a big collection-lord knows there are plenty of hits to string together-adding some filler and trying to sell his fans what they already own all over again only with fancier packaging.

Instead, he has gone into the vaults and pulled out some demos (for "Authority Song" and a revelatory "Jack and Diane" as well as "Jenny at 16," which holds the seeds to his classic song about two American kids "growin' up in the heartland"). There's a live take on "If I Die Sudden" (which appeared previously on his fine live EP "Life Death Live and Freedom") and alternative, stripped down recordings of career spanning songs. The set is not chronological and it forces the listener to make the connection between the juxtaposition of songs.
Yeah, you have to do some thinking for it to work for you. How apparently un-American.

If he didn't already use the title "Life Death Love and Freedom," he could have used it here as the songs run the gamut of those existential terms.
Disc two is the highlight as it meditates on the meaning and importance of freedom-freedom of choice, freedom of refusal, freedom of belief, and the freedom of the spirit and soul.

It includes some of Mellencamp's most potent socio-political songs including "Troubled Land" ("A hurricane on the horizon/judgment coming closer all the time/I can't find tomorrow/bring peace to this troubled land"), his reworking of the traditional song "To Washington," his grimace at the Reagan years, "Country Gentleman," and "Our Country," which, stripped of its big production and commercial tie-in, is liberated from any jingo-istic reading.

Like "Born in the U.S.A.," the song was misinterpreted and it has more to do with the populist notion of living close to the land and celebrating what the original core values that this country stand for rather than being any kind of flag waving anthem.

Of course, it closes out with "Pink Houses," the song a lot of people thought John Cougar sold his soul to the devil to write, as there was no precursor for his look at the American dream gone sour in his canon prior to its appearance. Little did they know what would follow.

Perhaps the most revealing disc is the fourth, which is Mellencamp on love, desire and hope, (of course, a word that embodies both love and desire). Many of these songs are tender ("Just Like You," the lovely "To M.G. (Wherever She May Be)") and nostalgic ("Sweet Evening Breeze").

"What If I Came Knocking," the barnstorming ode to sexual desire is here in a less urgent form while still retaining its vitality. "Peaceful World" and "Your Life Is Now" are sheer celebrations of life being lived.

Mellencamp's reputation as take-no-prisoners rocker is well earned, but listening to these songs over the four-CDs, you realize there are how many more shades there are to his music.

Certainly, those paying close attention to his career as a musician and as a painter (check out his book "Mellencamp: Paintings and Reflections") understand this quite well. He clearly has captured both the pained underbelly of Americana and the small epiphanies that make each one of us fight to get up on another day even when the odds seem stacked against us.

This was also evident in his fine, understated film, "Falling From Grace," which he directed and starred in all the way back in 1992. Somebody should rescue that and put it out on DVD as it's a tender love story filled with regret.
In short, those who have dismissed Mellencamp because of his early success with anthemic rock have missed one of the most multi-faceted and complex artists of our time.

His work is filled with contradictions and nuances and, while he has failed with some records, you have always gotten the sense that he was doing what he termed "The Best That I Could Do" on his greatest hits disc.

On the songs here, Mellencamp's devotion to and influence from American folk and blues is very apparent (the performances throughout are stellar). It makes you wonder why at a time when so many indie bands are being heralded for their return to sound of heartland America, Mellencamp's music is getting mostly ignored. Maybe he should be growing a beard and forgetting to bathe.

Unlike most of his older peers, he is one of the few rockers whose music has become more intriguing, compelling, and challenging as he has aged. Instead of resting on his laurels and playing easy nostalgia tours, he's searching out unknown trails (his new record, "No Better Than This" comes out this fall) and making relevant music that speaks to the times that we are mostly struggling to survive.

This beautifully rendered box-set, complete with gorgeous photos and Mellencamp's comments on each song (he thankfully puts a punctuation mark on all complaints about the failed last verse of "Pink Houses"), does indeed show listeners just how far he has come from 1976 debut.

And yes, in case you were wondering, Route 7609 is the journey from the year of his debut to the year of the conception of the box-set. The set is a reminder of the depth of his work for some of those who might have gotten lost along the way.

Click HERE to read the review on the Cape Cod Times website.